My Car Let Me Down

I was looking forward to Wednesday night. Not because I was planning a night on the town, nor was it a high-end date night at one of Portland’s finer restaurants, either.

Wednesday wasn’t even my “day off”; that happens to be Tuesday nowadays—me with my five variant shades of work. After knocking out six hours of financial coordination at the credit union, I was off to umpire in South Portland, at SMCC. The night was comfortable, especially with the school’s ball field situated, overlooking Casco Bay.

What was the source of my anticipation? A night when I wouldn’t be beckoned while being on-call at the funeral home. I’d finally have a night where I could finish my game, drive home, eat dinner, have a beer or two, and somewhat approximate the normal end-of-the-day experience of most Americans.

Instead, JBE1, aka my 2008 Ford Taurus, had other plans. He would choose Wednesday night to shed his serpentine belt and offer a glimpse of the night ahead.This was foreshadowed while we were tooling along Broadway in South Portland, headed towards the college. A red battery icon began glowing, while a message of “check charging system” commenced flashing across the car’s instrument panel.

I made it to my game, which involved being behind the plate for a mundane Twilight League game. Nothing of note happened and I walked off the field with my partner just prior to 8:00 p.m. So far, so good.

My initial thought when I began receiving the equivalent of warning texts from JBE1 was that I’d take it over to VIP when I arrived at work on Thursday, as the credit union branch where I’m now working is just across Union Park Road from a popular Maine auto repair chain. I was confident that the mechanic would hook it up to his diagnostic computer and would tell me that I was looking at a battery issue, or possibly something more serious.

Crossing the Casco Bay Bridge on my journey home, heading from South Portland to Portland, I noticed that my instrument panel wasn’t as bright as normal when I flicked on my headlights to ward off the approaching dusk. I killed the air conditioning and turned off the radio/CD player. Conserving power was now my priority #1,  if I had any hope of completing my 25-mile trek back to Durham. I even threw safety to the wind and  crossed the city sans headlights hoping to limit the electrical load on a system that was struggling, if not yet in failure mode.

Just north of Portland, I got that ominous feeling that this might be a repeat of a previous episode on the road that didn’t end well. That time, Mary and I were making our way back to Maine from Norton, Massachusetts and a trip to Wheaton College to watch our son, Mark, play college baseball for the Lyons.

Back then, I was driving a 1998 Ford Taurus wagon that I’d acquired as a one-year-old program car with just over 10,000 miles on the odometer. Like my current Ford, this previous vehicle held up well in terms of dependability and reliability. But with any domestically-made vehicle, usually when you begin getting close to the 200,000 mile mark, the frequency and size of subsequent repairs increases.

That time, we were just 20 miles from Wheaton, on I-95, when I had to turn on my headlights. If Ford had equipped their cars with the old-fashioned alternator gauge, I’d have known for sure that my electrical system was discharging. But dimming panel lights and then, the loss of my power steering just prior to fighting the car off the interstate, while eventually coasting into the parking lot of a convenience store where the car died, was the start of a “fun” evening. The night’s events also involved a tow, along with a call to Mark to “come get us” in the 1993 Camry wagon that we bequeathed to him. We then drove him back to his dorm, turned around, and made the 180 mile trip back to Maine in his 12-year-old car with 250,000 miles on the odometer.

Wednesday night, things were headed downhill fast as I blasted up the interstate. I figured my best bet would be to jump off the exit in Yarmouth, and continuing north on U.S. Route 1.  My hope was that I might be able to jog west and follow some well-known back roads with my headlights off, and limp into my driveway at home. That plan crashed and burned on County Road in Freeport less than a ½ mile from Route 1. Just as I crested the hill, JBE1 conked out. I coasted him to the edge of the road, stopping off the pavement and hit my flashers. There was still enough juice in my battery to illuminate my location on the side of the road. Time to summon AAA.

I ended up being towed to Lee’s Tire and Service in Brunswick. The tow truck driver from Atlantic Coast Towing, a young man named David, was courteous, professional, and he and I had a nice conversation on the drive from Freeport to Cook’s Corner.

Thursday, my day was heavily weighted towards a hastily-devised plan B. A ride with Miss Mary to Lee’s to drop off the keys and let Wayne Gagne know why my car was sitting in his parking lot. Then, getting dropped me off at work in Topsham. I was on-time, too.

JBE1 won’t be road-worthy ‘til later today. Parts from a Portland dealership wouldn’t be making it to Lee’s on Thursday, so I was told by the mechanic who called me. Not only did I have a busted belt, I had a major oil leak—the ultimate cause of the belt breaking—as well as a bent pulley. All told, my repair would be the equivalent of a car payment for a luxury sedan.

Make way for walkers.

Make way for walkers.

Thursday afternoon, I walked a mile and a half into Topsham to meet Mary who had an appointment at the Bowdoin Mill, a place where my father once worked when he first was hired by Pejepscot Paper Company. My commute to work on Friday will require some pedal power, once again.

While I can’t say I’m happy that my car died, things could have been worse. I’d also offer up that any time you have the chance to get out of the driver’s seat and see the world from an alternative commuting vantage point—whether bicycling, or playing the role of a pedestrian—illustrates one of the major dysfunctions of 21st century America.

Political types of either persuasion will insist that choosing to vote for their opponent—whether Hillary if you’re a conservative Republican—or Donald Trump if you’re a Democrat, even a so-called progressive one—will be the end of life as we know it. I’d disagree vehemently with that faulty, binary perspective.

My son and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on some of the key issues of the day. But I commend him for choices he has made that have delivered him from the tyranny of vehicle ownership and the cost associated with being a car owner, estimated to be close to $9,000 per year in the U.S. according to a study commissioned by AAA. He walks, bikes, and when necessary—wedges his 6’4” into the confines of a seat in the middle of some transcontinental bus carrier, like Greyhound—simply because he believes there are more efficient ways of getting around than relying on the internal combustion engine, powering vehicles most likely inhabited by a lone occupant.

Mark lives in Providence. This is a city, with public transportation options, bus routes that will take you to Boston or New York City, and commuter rail, too.

In a rural state like Maine, owning a car—with all the attendant costs associated with ownership—is at best, a kind of Faustian bargain. As the price of new cars continues to rise, coupled with all kinds of ancillary costs associated with having a vehicle, more and more Americans might be forced to choose something different, or worse, have no choice at all in the manner.

Cars always outnumber pedestrians in place like Maine.

Cars always outnumber pedestrians in place like Maine.

My concern is that we’ll continue spiraling downward, attempting to apply Band-Aids to an infrastructure devoted to Happy Motoring and excluding all other alternatives. We’ll keep on trying to fix and patch our crumbling network of roads. All because in America, cars (like many other symbols) are viewed as birthrights, and not open to honest debate.

Walking into Topsham yesterday afternoon, I knew Mark had made a wise choice in how he’s oriented his life without a car.

2 thoughts on “My Car Let Me Down

  1. All “collapse” themes aside, thinking about you driving sans headlights is kind of hilarious. There is a Wile-E Coyote aspect to it and it reminded me of a story Dad used to tell about someone having to drive their Rambler or Nash 20 miles in reverse because they lost their clutch or something. Remember that story?

    Handy’s ancient Dodge Caravan has been temporarily ditched as well. Thank goodness his father had an equally ancient Buick in the garage that had been off the road for about 6 years. We’ll be cruising around in soon.

    Happy Motoring, indeed!

  2. Not a good situation, knowing something is wrong and that further driving will only make it worse, yet being too far from home to deal with it properly. Good call to get off the interstate.

    So how long until you get a horse? The more I watch my Amish neighbors, the more I’m thinking how much wiser they are than us.

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